Q&A: Dietitian Virginia Messina Dishes on “Vegan for Her”

Written by Jaya Bhumitra

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While there’s an abundance of research overwhelmingly supporting the health benefits of choosing plant-based foods, there isn’t much out there specifically addressing women’s unique physical and life experiences—and our corresponding nutritional needs—until now.

Vegan for Her: The Woman’s Guide to Being Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet, by dietitian and Vegan for Life co-author Virginia Messina with recipes and tips by lifestyle coach and blogger JL Fields, offers women practical information for optimal health throughout their life. The book addresses common concerns such as calcium intake and osteoporosis, soy consumption and breast cancer, the safety of vegan pregnancy and breastfeeding, and the impact of plant-based eating on fertility, menopause, weight, stress, depression, heart disease, and diabetes. To supplement this guidance, Fields provides more than 50 vegan recipes, from the Adzuki Bean Potato Salad and Sweet Tempeh Bacon Sandwich to the Black-Eyed Pea and Collard Green Pizza and Coconut-Gingered Black Bean Brownies.

Messina and Fields also launched VeganforHer.com to accompany the book and share additional resources, as well as create a community for vegan and aspiring-vegan women. Here, Messina tells us more:

Q: What compelled you to write a book specifically for women who choose vegan foods? Are women’s dietary needs significantly different than men’s?

A: I wanted to write this book because women do have somewhat different nutritional needs than men, and they also have unique health concerns. For example, young women need more iron than men, but typically have lower intakes. And women are also more prone to conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, migraine headaches, and depression, all of which may be related to diet. And of course, there are issues related to fertility, pregnancy, and breast cancer that are specific to women.

Q: Breast cancer and osteoporosis are two illnesses commonly affecting women. How can plant-based foods help prevent, or if possible reverse, these diseases?

A: Vegan women need to give a little extra attention to protein and calcium—two nutrients that protect bone health. But getting these from plant foods gives women a little bit of a edge since these foods are rich in other nutrients like vitamin K, vitamin C, and potassium that may also protect bones.

And certainly there is some evidence that avoiding meat and eating more fiber can reduce risk for breast cancer. Eating soy foods early in life—during puberty—may also reduce risk for breast cancer and that’s a food habit that is more common in vegan families. So far, we don’t know if there is a diet that can reverse breast cancer. But, there is evidence that eating soy foods and more fiber and vitamin C improve prognosis after a breast cancer diagnosis. A healthy vegan diet can’t stand in for medical treatment of breast cancer, but it may be able to help with that treatment.

Q: Do certain plant-based foods alleviate premenstrual syndrome, menstrual cramps, or symptoms of menopause?

A: Unfortunately, we don’t have much research on diet for PMS and cramps. But one study did find that symptoms eased in women when they ate a vegan diet for two months. It might be the higher fiber content of plant-based diets is helpful.  For menopausal symptoms, there is very good evidence that many women can get relief from hot flashes by consuming traditional soy foods such as tofu, soy milk, and tempeh.

Q: Can choosing plant-based foods support weight loss?

A: The higher fiber content of plant foods may help with weight loss. And there is actually some evidence that the type of bacteria living in the colons of vegans many help with weight loss. In Vegan for Her, though, we encourage women to move away from a focus on body size toward a focus on the diet that promotes health and compassion. A vegan diet is always successful in that regard.

Q: Is a vegan pregnancy safe? Can it provide health benefits for the mom and baby?

A: Vegan women definitely give birth to healthy babies. Like women eating any type of diet, it’s important to eat healthfully and meet nutrient needs. But with the exception of vitamin B12—and vegan women do need to supplement with that nutrient, pregnant or not—there is nothing that pregnant women need that they can’t get from plant foods.

Q: What are some of the aesthetic benefits of plant-based eating? Are there particular foods that contribute to glossier hair, stronger nails, and clearer skin?

A: Avoiding dairy foods may produce clearer skin, so that’s an advantage for vegans. Diets that improve insulin sensitivity can also improve skin health, and vegans tend to have better insulin sensitivity. A diet high in antioxidants—abundant in whole plant foods—is good for skin health as well. We don’t really have research that look specifically at these issues in vegans, but what we know about the benefits of plant foods suggests some advantages for vegans.

Q: This book also contains recipes. Do you have a favorite?

A: Yes! The recipes were developed by my co-author JL Fields. I was with her in June when she made her Creamy Kale Miso Soup for the Niagara Vegfest and it was a big hit.

Creamy Kale Miso SoupCreamy Kale Miso Soup

By JL Fields from Vegan for Her

Makes 8 cups

  • 4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
  • 1 cup coarsely diced yellow onion
  • 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh garlic
  • 1 14-ounce package soft (not silken) tofu, pressed and drained
  • 4 cups kale, loosely packed
  • ¼ cup yellow miso

 

  1. Bring vegetable stock, onions, and garlic to a boil in a large saucepan.
  2. Cube the pressed tofu, add it to the saucepan, and bring back to a boil.
  3. Add kale (torn into large pieces), stir, cover, and simmer on low for 5 minutes.
  4. Remove saucepan from heat and stir in miso. It’s okay if it doesn’t all dissolve.
  5. Transfer soup from saucepan to a blender, cover tightly, and blend for 30 seconds to a minute, 3 cups at a time (or to the half-full point of your blender. If you have an immersion blender, blend in the pot (cover with a dishtowel to prevent hot splatters).
  6. Spoon into a bowl and garnish with a few pieces of raw kale.
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